|The Outer Lands|
A Teenager’s Narrative of a Dark and Dangerous Country
A book review by Ziauddin Choudhury
A prodigy is a gifted young person with exceptional talent. We have seen many such prodigies, but mostly in music, dance, or athletics. It is rare to find a teen ager who can put out literature that can only come from a mature adult. Yet Aliya Rahman, a Bangladeshi American who has yet to enter college, has come out with her first novel that is not only provocative in thought and mature in ideas, but also one that portends a future writer of immense capacity and prescience. The bigger marvel is that Aliya started writing the book when she was only twelve, and completed it some four years later.
Aliya Rahman’s book The Outer Lands is a dystopian novel, which is a narrative of a futuristic society with oppressive and totalitarian control. According to literary critics some of the main characteristics of a dystopian novel are an imagined universe with strict societal control, a pervasive and controlling bureaucracy, and severe restrictions of freedom and information. In this society powers lie in the hands of a few people or a group of people who rule through coercion and mind control, propaganda, and isolation of people from outside world.
Some of the classic dystopian novels in English literature are George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and in recent times, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel 1984, George Orwell portrays a paternalistic government (Big Brother) that keeps people under twenty-four surveillance, exercises total control of media, and pretends that it is protecting its citizens from their enemies. In Brave New World Huxley depicts a future world that has become one united state. The state has a scientifically balanced, efficiently controlled life that allows for no personal emotions or individual responses; art and beauty are considered disruptive, and mother and father are forbidden terms (everyone belongs to everyone). Humans are not born but grown in a hatchery with up to 15,000 clones grown from each embryo. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the US government. In a post-nuclear world, women are forbidden to read, and the few capable of having children are subjugated and forced to serve the wider needs of society by becoming breeding machines.
Aliya Rahman’s The Outer World is in every sense a dystopian novel cast in the author’s own country, the United States of America. In this society or imagined state in an undetermined future, life of an ordinary citizen is totally controlled by an oligarchy from birth to death, from where they live to where they work or go to school, and who they associate with. In this new world, people live in habitats that resemble a place recovering from a nuclear war scrambling for basic necessities such as water and energy. The oligarchy is run by Teams and Leaders who are given charges of different areas of the society, and they are the sole arbiters of the country. The citizens live in a dehumanized state, and are fed with false propaganda, and fear of the outside world. They have been led to believe that the outer world is nothing but oceans and no life exists in the outer world.
It is in this version of dystopian USA that young Annie Bender lives and in a serendipitous way discovers how the citizens have been lied to about the outer world from a Globe in a Library that has been shut out from the citizens. The book is a kind of an odyssey for Annie and her friends under the leadership of her newly found brave friend Colton facing challenges in freeing themselves from the clutches of the totalitarian leaders.
Literary critics identify a frequent theme in dystopian literature, which is struggle against a totalitarian regime. In The Outer Lands young Annie and her determined band of friends struggle to free themselves from a society that is ruled by a robotic bureaucracy and emotionless leaders. The story is surreal, but all dystopian literature is such.
One would think at her age the author would have written fairy tales for younger children or at best for her peers. What she has authored is beyond fairy tales, a disturbing future brought about by people who want to exercise authority and control. Fortunately for her and her readers this is a make believe world where good and determined people win over evil.
Ziauddin Choudhury is an author and a political commentator.